Death is all over kidlit.
When I tell my students at that death is one of the most important themes in children’s literature, many react with surprise. They ask, “Aren’t kids too young to deal with death?” and “Shouldn’t we be protecting young readers from such a dark subject?”
My answer is no. Definitely no.
Children’s literature has always looked death straight in the eye. In the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel’s mother has died, and their father cannot afford to keep them. In E.B. White’s 1952 classic, Charlotte’s Web, a barn spider named Charlotte does all she can to prevent the slaughter of her best friend, Wilbur the pig. And almost as soon as we meet J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, we learn he is an orphan.
If you ask me, it’s adults, not children, who have difficulty dealing with death. Children are by nature open and curious –and what is there to be more curious about than what happens to us after we die?
The best children’s books that explore the theme of death avoid euphemism. Their authors understand that by being open and honest about death they are providing guidance and support to young readers. They understand that we did not “lose” grandpa, or that a loved one did not “pass away.” These people died, and death is as much a part of life as going to school or having a crush.
Merrie-Ellen Wilcox’s non-fiction book After Life: Ways We Think About Death (Orca) provides a poetic, no-nonsense look at the reality of death. Wilcox answers questions that are on kids’ minds such as Why do we die? and What happens to us when we die?
What makes John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin) a modern-day classic is that Green manages to make us laugh and cry on the same page. He introduces us to teenagers attending a cancer kid support group. In the very first paragraph, the narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster tells us: “my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I … devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
I just finished reading Le Garçon Au Fond de la Classe (Gallimard Jeunesse), the French translation of Onjali Q. Rauf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class (Hodder and Staughton). In this delightful book, the nine-year-old narrator’s father has died. Her life changes when a new boy, a Syrian refugee named Ahmet joins her class. Ahmet is mourning too.
Death’s inevitability makes living even more important. When we are grieving, friendship helps. Laughter helps. Books can help too. As the narrator of Le Garçon Au Fond de la Classe puts it, “Les livres sont comme les gens.” Books are like people… they’re worth getting to know, and we can learn a lot from them.